This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Peter Kwon about the readings for the 8th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Hosea 11.1-11, Psalm 107.1-9, 43, Colossians 3.1-11, Luke 12.13-21). Peter is one of the pastors serving Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including foolishness, church cohorts, robe wearing, books, fear, the redeemed, old sermons, the already but not yet, Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads, the grammar of faith, and identity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Good News Of Being A Burden
Revelation 21.10, 22-22.5
And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of the Lord is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as a crystal, flowing form the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
It happens, every so often, that someone reaches out with an inquiry about baptism.
A couple has a baby and they call the church office to ask if it would be possible for their newborn to be baptized. A stranger stumbles into church on a Sunday morning, is moved by the power of the Spirit, and approaches me afterward to discuss the holy waters. A long time church members sees someone else being baptized and, for the first time, desires to receive the promise of the covenant made by water and the spirit.
And, inevitably, we come to a moment when I ask THE question as it pertains to baptism: “Why?”
One of my professors once said that the most faithful churches are those who won’t marry or baptize anyone off the street. That is, if a random couple asks to be married, it would be better for them to get married by the justice of the peace. The covenant of marriage, at least as understood by the church, is only possible within a community who will help hold the couple accountable to the promises they make.
And the same holds true for baptism.
Should you grow weary or bored at any point in the next ten to fifteen minutes, you can look at the liturgies in the hymnal or google online and you will discover that the questions and promises of marriage and baptism are remarkably similar.
What makes them similar is the outward nature of a promise, that neither of the them should be entered lightly, and they are only possible within the connection of a community we call church.
A few years back I was serving a church with a preschool and I made it a point to hang out among the students and their families as much as possible. I was at the door nearly every morning welcoming them into our building, I led chapel time once a week in the sanctuary, and after a while I started getting invited to a lot of 4 year old birthday parties.
And I’m not sure how it happened, but at some point along the way we had three different families represented in the preschool who each had a parent in ministry.
Let me tell you, teaching preschoolers about the Bible is hard enough, but it takes on a whole new dimension when a few of those children would return home week after week to tell their pastor-parent what this pastor said.
Anyway, it came to pass that, one year, two brothers from the preschool asked if I would baptize them. And, of course, their mother was also a United Methodist pastor serving a church on the other side of town. So we decided to baptize the boys together.
But this was not to be an ordinary baptism. No, we did not schedule it to take place once picturesque Sunday morning in a sanctuary, we didn’t even consider baptizing them in the preschool where they learned of the faith. The boys wanted to be baptized in living water, a river or a lake or a stream.
It happened on a cold early May day, where we gather on the banks of, I kid you not, Whiskey Creek in Churchville, VA. I knew well enough to bring my fishing waiters because the water was liable to be cold. And it was frigid.
So we said all the things we normally say, I prayed with the boys by the creek’s edge, and then, because it was so cold, I had to literally carry the younger brother out into the middle of the creek, and his mother and I rapidly dunked him under the water three times in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
When he burst forth from the water on the final dunking, he screamed bloody murder, tears were streaming down his face. He hit me in the face and declared for everyone to hear, “I hate you Pastor Taylor!”
And then I had to go get his brother and do the same thing to him.
John the Revelator sees what we cannot, at least not yet. From the vantage point of a high and holy mountain, he takes in the New Jerusalem, the great rectification of all things. And, oddly enough, there is no church in the city, no place of worship. How can it be that, when God comes to dwell among us, there is no place to gather such as this?
There is no temple because God is the temple.
There is no darkness because God is the light.
There is no gate because God is the host.
Nothing unclean will enter this holiest of places, and neither will those who practice abomination or falsehood.
And there, in the center of it all, is the river of the water of life, bright as a crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.
This water, and more importantly from whom it flows, makes all things new, all things holy, all things clean.
There has long been an understanding of John’s vision as a prophecy. That is: it tells us about what will come to pass at some point in the future. Christian types will then hold these images over the heads of their dozing congregations and point to connective images in our surrounding culture as signs that the times have come. They do so as a warning about getting clean for the king, repenting in dust and ashes, so that, when the time comes, they will do what is necessary to make it through the gate.
And all of that might be right. But if that’s all that this is, then we’re in trouble. Big trouble. Big trouble because, none of us will make the cut. Abomination sounds like a big and scary thing, and yet all of us practice abominations on a regular basis. An abomination is anything that causes distrust or hatred – and we live in a world that runs on distrust and hatred! We are defined, so often, not by what we love but by what we hate. And that’s not even mentioning those who deal in falsehoods, namely all of us.
For as much as this is an image of something that will come to pass, it is also, at the same time, very much a description of how things are right now. Revelation is a timeless book not because it stands the test of time, but because it rejects all notions of temporal categories. It is beyond time. It has happened, is happening, and will happen. But, for creaturely creatures like ourselves, we can scarcely wrap our heads around it.
But John’s sees something that speaks into who we are and whose we are in present, past, and future. John sees the river. The river of the water of life.
Water runs through the strange new world of the Bible. In the beginning God swept across the waters and brought forth order out of chaos. In the days of Noah God set forth a rainbow in the sky. When God saw God’s people as slaves in Egypt, God led them to freedom through the sea, and eventually through the Jordan to the land that was promised.
In the fullness of time God sent Jesus, nurtured in the water of a woman and was baptized by John in the river Jordan. Jesus called his disciples to share in his baptism of death and resurrection and to spread to the Good News to all who will hear it.
The water that flows through the middle of the street of the city in John’s vision is the water through which we are delivered to a strange new land where even people like us are made holy.
Nothing unclean can enter the city and we can’t make ourselves clean. No amount of goodness, no down-on-our-knees prayers of repentance, no righteous acts of piety or mercy can wash away our sins.
The old hymn is right: What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Therefore, I can understand the hatred that came from the boy I baptized in Whiskey Creek. To be made clean implies there is a need to be made clean. And no one likes to admit there is something wrong with them. Moreover, baptism is the beginning of a journey into discipleship and following Jesus isn’t easy! I mean, look at who he decided to gather together as a church! Us! We’re stuck with each other whether we like it or not!
Now, could that boy articulate his hatred in the river with such theological insights? Probably not. But his emotional response to the cold waters of his baptism is a truth we often forget. Baptism changes everything.
The blood of the Lamb, who comes to take away the sins of the world, flows forth from the throne and makes a way where there is no way. It is the great cleansing flood that makes the impossible possible. Baptism is God’s way of saying yes to us when God has no good reason to say yes at all.
I, myself, was baptized at 19 days old. I had no choice. It was done to me.
But those who were gathered in the church 34 years ago took seriously the vows they made to raise me in the faith, with God’s help. So much so that I wound up going into the ministry.
Beware of baptizing your child! You never know what God might call them to do!
Anyway, when I was 25 and about to start serving in my first appointment, I had the opportunity to return to my home church and preach one last time as a layperson. I preached on the power of baptism and how I was a product of their promises.
After the service ended, and I was shaking hands in the narthex, a woman I had known my whole life approached me with a well worn Bible in her hand. She opened it up to the inside front cover and I saw names and dates covering every available inch. And with her index finger she moved across the name until she came to mine and she said, “Whenever we have a baptism I write down the name and date of the person and I pray for each of them every morning. Which means, I’ve prayed for you almost every single day of your life.”
I don’t know “why” my parents had me baptized. I’m not sure they were ever asked, or if they even gave it much thought. But that conversation with that woman in the narthex of the church is the beginning of an answer to the question.
The boys I baptized in Whiskey Creek, one of whom socked me in the face right after, that moment started a journey that is the adventure of faith. Each and every day they are learning more about what it means to love God, and to be loved by God.
Baptism is the radical reorientation of all things. Whenever we bring someone to the water, whenever we remember our own baptisms, the heavens are torn apart again and God meets us in the water, right where we are.
The radical nature of the sacrament is made manifest insofar as our baptismal identities are more determinative than any other part of who we are. The waters of baptism wash away any notion of our being defined by our faults and our failures. Each drop of baptismal water contains an ocean of grace and mercy and love deep and wide enough to engulf the entirety of everything that ever was or will be.
In baptism, the heavens are torn apart, the past, present, and future are confused in the best possible way, and the Lord declares, “you are my child.”
And we are who God’s says we are. Amen.
Garrison Keillor, of Lake Wobegon fame, once opined in song about what it means to be part of the people called Methodists:
I’ve been going to church every Sunday morn,
Still don’t know if I’ve been reborn,
I’m sixty years old, is there something I’ve missed?
Or is it just that I’m Methodist?
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
The organ is soupy and the pastor is bland
Leave afterward and I shake his hand
Sometimes I’d like to shake my fist
That’s what it’s like to be Methodist.
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
The sound system’s bad, there’s a buzz in the speaker,
The budget is busted, the collection is meager,
This great big debt load we been carryin’
Maybe we oughta be Unitarian.
People gossip about who did what,
The ladies circle is a pain in the butt.
Want to slap their face or at least their wrist,
But I can’t cause I’m a Methodist.
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
We’re not big on shows and dances,
Mixed drinks or big romances,
I’ve been hugged but never French kissed,
That’s because I’m a Methodist.
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
Everybody wants to sit in the back pews,
Want the sermon to reflect their views,
Some of these Christians, they are the rudest.
What do you say we try being Buddhist?
The same ten people always volunteer,
Half of them old, the others just weird,
How do we ever manage to persist?
We do it by being Methodist!
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
People offer to help then they don’t remember,
It can make you almost lose your temper,
Sit and steam and clench your fist,
But you can’t hit them, you’re a Methodist.
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
Everyone’s afraid of change.
Don’t like anything new or strange.
Or we get our underwear in a twist,
That’s how it is with a Methodist.
I’ve got the Methodist blues.
We were founded by John Wesley,
Not Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley,
We’re not so hip but we persist,
We go on being Methodist.
What does it mean to be Methodist? We’re currently in the midst of a confirmation class at church in which we attempt to answer that very question each Sunday with and for our confirmands. Ask the average Methodist on a Sunday morning what it means to be Methodist and you might hear something about John Wesley, or holiness of heart and life, or prevenient grace. But you’re just as likely to hear about casseroles, singing hymns, and being the via media between Baptists and Catholics.
The longer I serve as a pastor in the United Methodist Church the more I am convinced that, like with marriage, you can only figure it out along the way. One day you’ll be singing a hymn between the pews and realize, “Oh yeah, I do believe this!” Or you’ll walk down to receive the bread and cup and be overwhelmed by what Christ did, does, and will do. Or you’ll sit in the silence of a prayer and receive an assurance that, to use Wesley’s words, “Christ has taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Every denomination carries its own blues. We Methodists even sing about them at the start of every annual conference: “What troubles have we seen / What conflicts have we passed / Fightings without, and fears within / Since we assembled last.”
But that is only part of the song we sing. For it ends thusly:
But out of all the Lord
Hath brought us by His love;
And still He doth His help afford,
And hides our life above.
Then let us make our boast
Of His redeeming power,
Which saves us to the uttermost,
Till we can sin no more.
Let us take up the cross
Till we the crown obtain;
And gladly reckon all things loss,
So we may Jesus gain.
Let us therefore boast and rejoice even in our blues, knowing that Jesus is the difference who makes all the difference.
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praise to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout along and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
A friend of mine, Kenneth Tanner, is a priest who defies all sorts of labels. He is both Charismatic and Anglican. His church has icons and their band plays songs by U2. He wears a collar just about everyday and, when necessary, he can say things you’d never imagine hearing from a priest. He serves a church called Holy Redeemer outside of Detroit, Michigan. Last week, he got an urgent phone call to go to a grocery store right near Oxford High School which had just experienced a mass school shooting.
Ken arrived and stood among the gathered parents who were all waiting to be reunited with their children immediately after the incident.
Teacher were there having just experienced the trauma themselves.
And even the employees of the grocery store did what they could to help.
Ken was there for hours, ministering among the families, helping to connect desperate kids with their desperate parents.
And, eventually, it became clear that a few families no longer had children with whom they could be reunited.
Ken, afterward, said that his experience of darkness in that moment, the total and upmost despair led him, once again, to the conclusion that either Christ is resurrected from the dead, or there is nothing.
I don’t know if it has been your experience in the past, but it seems like we are confronted by the harsh realities of life most during this season of the year. The rates of depression and suicide skyrocket during these weeks, more CPS reports are made, all while we decorate our houses with twinkling lights and we tune our radio to the same 25 songs being played over and over again.
When I talked to Ken after everything he witnessed and experienced last week he said, “Whenever I come this close to the darkness, even in the midst of its most horrifying degrees, the only thing I can cling to is that God is our salvation; God is the only hope we have.”
That, in a sense, is what the prophet Isaiah proclaims for us today: Surely God is my salvation! Come to the wells of salvation that will never run dry. Give thanks to the Lord, call upon God’s name; make known God’s deeds among the people, sing it out to the whole earth; God is with us.
That’s a powerful word for those who sit among the ruins, for those who are overwhelmed by the darkness, for those who don’t experience this as the most wonderful time of the year.
In life we are told again and again who we are. We are labeled by the world for all sorts of things, be it our jobs, vocations, mistakes, shortcomings, on and on.
We can receive one hundred compliments and one critique and it will be the critique that we hold on to. And, after time, we start to believe the critique, whatever it was, is more determinative regarding our identity than anything else. We internalize those things so deeply that we become what we fear.
And yet, in the life of faith, none of us really know who we are until God tells us.
We are who God says we are.
The church, at her best, functions as this proper mirror by which we can see ourselves. We lift up the cross as the reflection for us to really see who we really are.
The church exists to tell the truth – We are sinners in need of grace and Jesus is the power in our lives who makes us more than we could ever be otherwise.
And, let me be clear, that does not mean that the church exists to make people like you better and better. We don’t get together in order to rejoice in how good we are. We are not a gym nor are we a self-help program.
Jesus has already changed us. The only thing we have to do is act accordingly.
Which can be both extremely easy, and dangerously difficult.
Surely God is our salvation! That’s Good News! But’s it’s also hard news to receive because if God is our salvation, then it means that we are not.
And if there’s one thing we don’t like to do, it’s relinquishing control.
There will always be other things in life we chose to trust instead of the Lord. We will cling to the powers and the principalities in life, we will even lean on our own ability to do certain things.
But those idols will never give us life.
They cannot and will not bring us the love and the salvation we so desperately need.
There is no gift under the tree that will bring us the fulfillment we seek.
There is no promotion at work that will prevent us from the anxiety of what tomorrow might bring.
There is no perfect parent to fill us with just the the right amount of love just as there is no champion of a child who will fills the holes in our souls.
And yet, it’s those types of things that we turn to when we know not where else to turn.
Isaiah’s proclamation is meant for a people who have no home in this world. It is for strangers in a strange land. Whether it was in the exile of Babylon, or the places we find ourselves in today surrounded by objects and obsessions that promise life and only give death, this is a Word for us.
It is for us because Isaiah calls for us to celebrate the coming of God’s salvation to a land that is in the deep darkness of God’s judgment.
We don’t talk much about judgment in the church today save for the ever present reminder that we shouldn’t be so judgmental all the time. And yet God is the God of judgment. God holds up these scriptures and calls us to task.
Look at what we’ve done, look at what we’ve become! Those stories on the news, the ones that leaves us quaking, they are about us! This is the culture we created.
And that is a difficult word for us to hear! It is challenging because we are addicted to control. At least, we’re addicted to thinking we’re in control.
We make lists upon lists of all the right gifts for all the right people. We map out the perfect holiday meals and grocery stores runs to make sure we’re able to procure all the essential ingredients. We curate playlists of just the right songs to put us, and everyone else, in the right mood. And that’s just during Advent!
We also do what we can, explicitly and implicitly to make sure that we never have to bump into the wrong kinds of people. We turn on the news and assure ourselves that we’ve taken all the right precautions to make sure those kinds of things never happen to us (until they do). We build up these stories about who we are and what we stand for all the while things are crumbling all around us.
But Jesus is our Salvation! The strange new world of the Bible bombards us with the declaration that Jesus is all we need to live in a world out of control.
You see, following the Lord is just training for learning to live out of control. Faith is just a word for letting go of our obsession with trying to fix everything. Everything has already come out right because we have seen the end in Jesus.
The end that is Jesus makes it possible for us to go on even though we are not sure of where we are.
That’s not to say that we can’t do or change anything. To learn to live out of control guarantees that our lives will include suffering. Remember: these words are for people in exile. For those who live between the times; for Advent people.
Advent, therefore is the blessed and bewildering opportunity not to turn away from darkness, but to stare right into the heart of it knowing that the light of Christ will always shine in it. And then we take that light, whether in our prayers or in our singing or in our talking or our walking, and we live according to it rather than the darkness that creates nothing but fear.
We cling to the old rugged cross, that stands in the shadow of death, in anticipation of the new dawn that is redeeming grace.
Because if this is it, this world, in spite of efforts of good people, if this is it, then it’s nothing but unmitigated bad news.
I don’t know, maybe Advent isn’t the right time to think about all of this. I’ve got a job, I’ve got presents wrapped under the tree, I’ve got a family, maybe you’re like me. But there are people, lots of people, for whom this world, this life, has been one disappointing misery after another.
There are families in Michigan who will wake up on Christmas Day without a teenager they had just two weeks ago.
There are families here in Roanoke who have no bright hope of tomorrow because all they can see is the darkness.
There are people here in this church, right in these pews, who are terrified of the future because they see and hear nothing but bad news day after day.
And yet, hear the Good News: Jesus comes to make all things new.
So maybe that’s why you’re here. Perhaps you’ve come to church not for some tips and tricks on how to make it through another week. But instead you are here to have your minds blown and your imaginations opened.
Maybe you’re here for hope.
Hear me when I say there is no greater hope than this: God is our salvation. God does for us that which we cannot do. God saves us.
If our hope is only in ourselves and in the machinations of this world, then we have no hope at all.
But, by the grace of God, we have hope because hope is born in that little manger in Bethlehem, born to live, die, and live again, born to set us free, born to return with the resurrection of the dead, born to make all things new.
In the end, that’s why we set up the decorations. We do so in defiance of the powers and principalities that rule through darkness. We do so as a reminder to ourselves that Jesus has redeemed us from the temptation of believing that violence is the only answer. We do so in anticipation of the One who returns to us with holes in his hands and says, “I forgive you.”
We are called to practice resurrection. That is, we Christians live according to the Good News of the Gospel which means we are different. We belong to a new age and a new time and a new kingdom in which death is not the end.
Our rejoicing, therefore, is not naïveté.
We don’t come here to pretend that everything out there isn’t actually out there.
We come here precisely because the darkness is so overwhelming, and we need something we can cling to in the midst of it all.
That something has a name: Jesus Christ
Surely God is our salvation; that is why we rejoice.
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. Amen.
A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver and gold.
Names are important. There are few things that warm the heart quite like someone remembering your name in a world so busy that we often forget almost everything else.
There is a huge difference between, “Oh hey, it’s so nice to see you!” and “Oh hey Taylor, it’s so nice to see you!” The difference might only be one word, but that one word makes all the difference.
Our names are so integral to who we are that they shape us and shift us around in ways that we don’t even realize. For instance: studies show that individuals who share a first initial with the first initial of a major storm are far more likely to donate money than people with other names. Therefore, Kims and Karls donated more money after hurricane Katrina than did Marys and Matthews.
The incredible importance of our names is also made evident in what’s called the Cocktail Party Effect. The idea is that, when you’re at a party even with hundreds of people in attendance, if someone mentions your name on the other side of the room you’ll hear it. Somehow your name will rise above the decibels of the room and it will float along until it catches your attention in a way that nothing else can.
A few weeks ago I was sitting in a coffee shop working on a sermon when someone, seemingly out of nowhere, shouted, “REVEREND!”
I almost fell out of my chair.
“Yes?” I stammered. The man was unfamiliar to me, but he gave me a look I can only describe as bewildered. He said, “Well I saw your Bible sitting there and I figured you had to be Reverend and I wanted to ask for your prayers, but I’ve been trying to get your for attention for a minute or so and you never responded. Are you sure you’re a Reverend?”
He had been calling my name, the one given to me by God, and I didn’t hear him at all.
I can blame it on being distracted by my work, or even the relative noise of the coffee shop, but the truth is I understand myself as a Taylor far more than I do as a Reverend.
Our parents give us our names – the ones that usually draw our attention. But God has also given each of us new names that truly define who we are. The great challenge is that sometimes we can’t hear them at all or we’ve forgotten who we actually are: children of God.
But when we remember who we are in Christ, it actually changes the way we see ourselves and the way we see others. We are given a new identity and a new community in which we are not defined by what we’ve done or left undone – Instead we are defined only by what God in Christ has done for us.
Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandoned the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defiled. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
It’s rather strange how God does so many ungodly things.
One would think, and perhaps hope, that God in the flesh would know better than to erase the sins held against us, that the incarnate Word would choose to spend time among more respectable persons, that the Holy One of Israel would follow the rules.
And yet, listen: The Pharisees and the scribes, that is: the good religious folk, those who tithed and showed up for worship and prayed their prayers, noticed that Jesus’s disciples were eating their food with defiled hands.
Now, the washing of hands wasn’t about hygiene – it was about pious and sacred preparation and separation – it demonstrated who was in and who was out. At the end of the day it was a public demonstration about who was living properly and who wasn’t.
So the good religious people say, “What’s the deal JC? You can’t really be the Messiah it your people aren’t following the rules!”
These Pharisees have it all together, mind you. They know their scriptures backwards and forwards, they always show up early when the fellowship hall needs some new paint, they never let the offering plate pass by without dropping something in. They want to know how Jesus, the so-called Anointed One, could get away with such irreligious behavior.
How does Jesus respond?
“Y’all are a bunch of hypocrites! You’ve let your religion become a stumbling block to those in the faith – these rules and expectations don’t make people holy and they certainly don’t make life any better, they only go to show that you think you’re better than everyone else!”
And then Jesus motions for all of the crowds to come closer because he wants everyone to hear:
“Listen up! It is not what goes into us that defiles us. It doesn’t matter what we eat and with whom. What does matter is what comes out of us. The heart is a fickle thing and leads to all sorts of suffering. Evil comes from within, and those things are what defile a person.”
It’s as if Jesus is imagining the great banquet table of the Kingdom of God, but there are only place setting for those who think they’re the best of the best and then Jesus mic drops: “There’s a place at the table for everyone but your self-righteousness keeps getting in the way.”
Contrary to how we often talk about it, and even how we live it out, Christianity isn’t a religion – if it is anything it is the declaration of the end of religion. Religion consists of all the things human beings have ever thought we have to do to get right with God. Christianity tells us that God in Christ does what we could never do in order to reconcile the world to himself.
Or, as Martin Luther memorably put it, “The law says, ‘do this.’ And it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”
We, the church, don’t exist to wag our fingers at every little sin and indiscretion, we are not here to proclaim the Bad News that God will only think kindly upon us after we have fixed all of our mistakes.
Instead, the church exists to announce the Good News, the very best news, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”
Christianity isn’t an arbitrary set of rules to be followed.
Christianity is an adventure in which we are always on the journey of discovering the Love that refuses to let us go.
And yet, what does that adventure ultimately lead to?
If we’re serious about transforming the world, it’s in our mission statement after all, then it has to start somewhere. Of course there is sin and evil in our corporations and in our institutions. But there’s also sin and evil in us. And its those sins that Jesus seems to be talking about with the Pharisees.
In 1905 the Daily News in London published a piece titled, “What’s Wrong With The World?” And they asked for readers to submit answers to the question. Hundreds and thousands of people replied with all sorts of responses. GK Chesterton, essayist and theologian, responded with only two words: “I am.”
We are what’s wrong with the world.
Why? Because we are consumed with our own self-interests, because we create communities in which some are in and some are out, because we knowingly and unknowingly contribute to systems that force people to the margins, on and on and on.
How can we fix what’s wrong within us?
Well, the truth is, we can’t. But there is someone who can, and does. His name is Jesus.
Jesus shows up on the scene, eating with outcasts, healing the undeserving, preaching the Good News to those who are drowning in bad news – he offers glimpses of a future not yet seen.
And while some people love it, others hate it.
Jesus warns the crowds, and us, about not becoming obsessed with the external at the expense of the internal. Remember: this is the same guy who tells us to stop looking at the splinter in someone else’s eye while ignoring the log in our own, this is the same guy who insists on dining with the wrong people, this is the same guy who, at some point, showed up in your life and my life and said nothing more than, “Follow me.”
It’s easy to point out all the problems with other people – it’s hard to look in the mirror.
Judgment comes first to the household of God, scripture says.
Perhaps we’ve forgotten that.
Basically, it doesn’t do us any good to lament the brokenness of the world if we are unwilling to confront the brokenness that’s right here in our hearts.
The Pharisees don’t like the idea of Jesus’ disciples not following the rules and so they confront the Messiah. Jesus’ rebuke of their hardheartedness, as much as it might make us smirk with religious smugness, it creates a tension for those of us who want to follow the Lord.
The tension is between the commands of God and human traditions. What is the core essence of our faith? What do we have to do to be faithful? How do we know what is what?
The church has always existed in this strange middle space, between the already but the not yet, between what the strange new world of the Bible says, and what it means to live according to those words, or better yet, the Word, today.
And maybe the tension is a good thing – it allows us to wrestle with what we’re being called to do.
There’s a reason we bristle at over-confidence in life, whether its in regard to scripture or not. Total certainty just rubs us the wrong way. There’s a fine line between confidence and self-righteousness.
Bishop Will Willimon, a teacher and friend of mine, was once asked by a newspaper about how he felt regarding LGBTQIA inclusion in the church. His response: I firmly stand by Jesus’ teachings regarding the LGBTQ community.
And, the next day, the front page of the newspaper, right at the top in big bold letters, it said, “Rev. Dr. Will Willimon affirms Jesus’ traditional teaching regarding homosexual persons.”
A small uproar ensued.
And here’s why: After they read his quote, people went looking in their Bibles to see what Jesus had to say about the LGBTQIA community and, lo and behold, he didn’t say anything.
And yet, Jesus does say that if our eye should cause us to sin, we should tear them out and, last I checked, we don’t have any one-eyed members of our congregation.
What, then, are we called to do?
In our little denominational corner of the world we have something we call the quadrilateral. It was developed by a man named Albert Outler who, having read through all of John Wesley’s works, posited that we have four primary modes by which we can theologically interpret what it happening and what we can do.
Those four quadrants are: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.
Scripture says the faithful can’t eat shellfish, and there are moments within the Tradition of the church that it was somewhat prohibited, the Reason was mostly likely to identify who was among the people of Israel and who wasn’t, and my Experience tells me that shrimp tacos are really delicious so… maybe I’ll eat shrimp tacos?
The quadrilateral is, admittedly, a helpful hermeneutical tool. It gives us the means by which we can interpret how to be in the world.
And yet, it is wildly problematic at the same time.
Our Experience is fiercely unreliable, because every person’s experience of the world is different. Some of the most horrific things to happen in history have been attributed to Reason. The Tradition of the church is just as varied as our own individual experiences. And even Scripture contradicts itself all over the place.
The life of faith is always a pilgrimage, a journey, that requires humility. The adventure that is called faith encourages us to let go of the total certainty we think we have over the strange new world of the Bible because it is, in fact, always strange and always new. And yet, it is our world!
When we see faith that way, not as something to be mastered but instead as something to respond to, we will be far more likely to love one another rather than attack one another.
Despite a motto of open hearts, open minds, and open doors, the church has put a whole lot of energy into keeping certain people out rather than doing the hard work of looking inward as to why we keep wanting to draw lines in the sand.
In other words, we haven’t changed all that much over the last two thousands years. We still let petty squabbles get the better of us, we are far too inclined to drop people from our lives the moment they don’t fit into the boxes of our own creation, and the Good News really just sounds like bad news.
There is something wrong with us – we keep hurting ourselves and one another all while God is in the business of reconciliation and resurrection.
It’s really ungodly of God to keep setting the table for all of us, but that’s exactly who God is! The consummate host at the Supper of Lamb to which we are all invited even though none of us deserve it!
In the end, if anything in the Bible disagrees with Jesus, then we listen to Jesus. You have heard it was said, but I say to you… I’ve come not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law… I am the way, the truth, and the life…
Think about the Transfiguration – Moses and Elijah, all of the Law and all of the Prophets, are standing to Jesus’ left and right, and what does God say? “This is my Son. Listen to him!”
And that’s exactly what we do when we come to worship. We listen to Jesus. All of this – our prayers, our songs, our silence, our sacraments, our sermons, they are all part of the work God is doing to us and with us.
In other words: There can be no transformation of the world without a revolution of the heart. So be it. Amen.
My heart overflows with a goodly theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.
Poetry is not my forte.
That is, I can neither write poetry nor do I often understand it.
Give me a big work of theology, or nonfiction, or fiction and I will plow through the words.
But poetry? No thank you.
Poetry, unlike just about all other writing, is not meant to be consumed quickly.
Poetry takes time.
And so I force myself to read poems out loud and with a slow pace, otherwise I run the risk of leaving the poem no wiser than I was at the beginning.
Lots of scripture is poetic, or at least it’s meant to be received poetically. We are not called to be masters of the text but instead we are called to be servants of the Word.
And that takes time.
Frankly, it’s why we keep returning to the same scriptures year after year because those words reveal to us something about the Word. And when we come closer to the Word we discover more about who we are and whose we are.
A few years ago, while forcing myself through a collection of poems, one jumped out at me. It was so powerful and so moving that I read it over and over not because of a lack of comprehension, but because it was so true.
That poem is below and I encourage you to take the time to read it slowly, read it out loud if you have to, until you can rest in the knowledge that grace really is the fund by which alone we live.
Original Sin by Wendell Berry
Well, anyhow, it preserves us from the pride
of thinking we invented sin ourselves
by our originality, that famous modern power.
In fact, we have it from the beginning
of the world by the errors of being born,
being young, being old, causing pain
to ourselves, to others, to the world, to God
by ignorance, by knowledge, by intention,
by accident. Something is bad the matter
here, informing us of itself, handing down
its old instruction. We know it
when we see it, don’t we? Innocence
would never recognize it. We need it
too, for without it we would not know
forgiveness, goodness, gratitude,
that fund of grace by which alone we live.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
The Spirit fell upon the disciples like flames of fire.
They were given the gift to speak in many languages, tumbled out into the streets, and started spitting off the Good News.
Crowds of people assumed they were drunk, even very early in the morning.
But Peter, ever eager Peter, stood and preached to the people and told them exactly what God was up to.
And that day, 3,000 were added to the early church.
That should be the end of the story and we should be able to move on to the next relevant narrative. After all, it’s the Acts of the Apostles so it would nice to find out what happens next. Maybe jump to the early details of Saul soon to be Paul. Or maybe give us an update on what the women who went to the tomb were now up to. Maybe we could catch a glimpse of the powers and principalities plotting against this budding group that just won’t shut up.
But that’s not what happens in Acts.
Luke just keeps going. The story continues by showing, rather immediately, how the Holy Spirit is embodied by those who are now part of The Way.
They devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching.
They gather together in fellowship.
They break bread and feast with one another.
And, finally, they share their prayers.
But it’s more than that.
We, those of us for claim to follow Jesus, we can point to any of those descriptions as being part of our faith lives even today.
On a weekly basis many of us commit ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, we gather (even on the internet) to share in fellowship with the revealed Word, we offer signs of peace to each other with the breaking of bread, and, at the very least, we pray.
But wait, there’s more!
And the more is something that, we confess, we’d like to overlook at times.
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need.
I mean, God, it’s all good and fine if you want us to put some money in the offering plate or donate online every once in a while. We’re even on board with serving meals to the homeless so long as it eases our guilty consciences.
But selling off our possessions and distributing the proceeds to other people?
That sounds awful.
Luke choses this moment, having learned that the Good News is spreading like wild fire, to show what the early gathering of faith looks like. And it looks like a bunch of lazy pinko commies who want everything done for them.
Or, that’s at least how some would have us imagine it.
However, the commonality of goods is set up as a concrete testimony of how empowering the Holy Spirit really is. It forces us to confront, with wonder, that something unsettling, specific, and substantial has happened to these bewildered and bewildering people.
And maybe, just maybe, we should call the first Christians communists.
That, of course, sounds ridiculous and downright rude to some of our ears. Communism, politically speaking, doesn’t really come close to the bartering and redistribution of the small and early group of the faithful, but it is notable that we find those two things to be so incompatible with one another.
Particular when, frankly, Christianity has far less in common with something like capitalism than communism.
This is somewhat of a scandal to those of us in the West, and in particular those from the good ol’ US of A. Today, with our (and by “our” I mean American) bizarre piety for, and idolatry of, free enterprise and private wealth, it’s almost unimaginable that we would ever call something like this country a Christian nation.
Or, to put it simply, if the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer, then it’s not the kingdom of God.
Certainly no one in the Acts church, not even Peter, was advocating for, or attempting to institute, some new political rule over and against the powers and principalities. The disciples were not holding informational meetings with agendas about how to get the right people elected to office. Nor were they standing on the street corners of Jerusalem handing out hats emblazoned with “Make Israel Communist Again.” They weren’t even setting up their own political action committees to consolidate tremendous amounts of money.
But the church was (and always will be) its own politics.
Our form of life as the gathering body of Christ is predicated on the sharing of goods as seen here at the beginning of Acts. And it’s not just because we think we should be doing nice things for other people.
It’s simply the embodiment of what we really believe.
God has made all things new and turned the world upside down.
However, most us would like to tip it back over every once in a while.
It’s amazing to read this little description of the early church and see how far we’ve moved away from it. But, for a long time in the early centuries of the church, the redistribution of all things was fairly normative. So much so that even by the 4th century, Ambrose of Milan refused to grant that even a rich man could make gifts to the poor. Instead, he could, at most, only restore what already belonged to them,
Say that in a place like the US today and you’re liable to get kicked out.
Again, many would consider that behavior and idealism downright awful.
But how could it ever be possible unless people were filled with awe?
They devoted themselves to this wildly different way of living, instilling a sense of value and worth in all people, and then they broke bread together with glad and generous hearts.
Which, in many senses, means they liked to have a good time with each other.
And, this makes a lot of sense. When you take away the things that tend to divide us from one another the most (namely economics and possessions), when those walls are torn down forever, there’s no better way to respond than by throwing a party.
This really is at the heart of what it means to be a gathering people, to be the church.
Go through the Gospels sometimes and note how many times Jesus “was at table with them.” And the them in that sentence contains a whole bunch of people who never would’ve eaten together otherwise.
Jesus goes to a wedding, and when the host runs out of wine he makes manifest the first miracle so that the party won’t stop.
Jesus comes upon a tiny little tax collector, a man who has made life miserable for so many, and what does he do? He invites himself over for lunch.
Jesus meets the deserting and denying disciples on the shore of the sea with some grilled fish and a nice loaf of artisanal bread.
Of all the criticisms lobbed at Jesus by the governing and religious authorities, the fact that he ate with sinners is one of the things that comes up the most. They couldn’t stand the company he kept at table. Receiving the outcasts, eating with the marginalized, instilling worth and value in people who felt worthless and valueless was Jesus cup of tea.
And it drove people crazy.
It would be quite easy, therefore, to take this text and preach it at people like all of you in such a way that you would feel guilty for not inviting more of the riffraff over for dinner. It’s not all that difficult to raise up the redistribution of goods here in Acts and drop that like a bombshell on the dozing church and triumphantly declare that you all need to get your acts together!
And, that’s all fine. Perhaps we should feel guilty for the company we keep and maybe we should feel guilty about how we keep holding onto all our earthly possessions while people around us starve.
Jesus failed to make distinctions between people and we can’t get enough of it of those distinction that people squarely in their places.
But, haven’t we heard all of that before?
We need longer tables, and more open churches, and bigger feeding programs.
Preacher types like me remind people on a somewhat regular basis that Jesus has given us work to do. That we must rid ourselves of our addictions to the old systems of prioritized self-interest that result in the first being first-er and the last being last-er.
But has that kind of exhortation ever worked?
Notice: when Jesus went to the wee-little man’s house for a mid-afternoon snack, he doesn’t tell him to go and repay everyone he wronged.
The tax collector comes up with that all on his own.
Notice: The Holy Spirit doesn’t command the early church to set up programs for food delivery and economic redistribution.
They just start living differently.
Being filled with awe, really filled with awe, is a crazy thing and can make us do crazy things.
And what could fill us with more awe than knowing that Christ chooses us?
Or, let me put it another way: What if what we’re supposed to focus on isn’t so much our need to have bigger visions of the kingdom, but that Jesus’ vision of the kingdom was big enough to include us?
Or how about this: What if instead of thinking about what we would have to do to get criticized for the people we hang out with, we thought about how Jesus would be criticized for hanging out with the likes of us?
Because, let’s admit it, we don’t have a lot going in our favor.
We do things we know we shouldn’t.
We avoid doing things we know we should.
We care more about ourselves than other people.
Giving up our possessions so that those who have nothing can have something doesn’t sound like a good deal.
And knowing this, knowing that we bristle at the ideas and images of a radical way of life, knowing that our addiction to self-interest isn’t something we can kick, Christ comes to us and for us anyway.
It’s like we’ve been brought before the throne of God and every single one of our mistakes is paraded out in front of us. With every instance we cower closer and closer to the floor. And at the end, Christ looks at us, really looks at us, and says, “It’s okay. I forgive you.”
That is radical.
Perhaps even more radical than inviting a few extra people over and giving away a few things to make someone else’s life a little better.
Once we even come close to realizing how ridiculous it is that Jesus has invited us to his table, how bewildering it is that in him all things are held together, how perplexing it is that through him the first have become last and the last have become first, then we can begin to see what it means to be filled with awe.
It could change everything.
It already has.
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Who elected him king of this whole enterprise in the first place. I mean, who does he think he is? We’ve been out here wandering and wandering, and it’s not like he has a map or anything. And compasses haven’t even been invented yet!
I think that it’s high time someone gave him a piece of our minds.
Fine, I’ll do it.
Hey Moses! I need a word.
We’ve been camping here at Rephidim for a while now, and, um, what exactly are you going to do about the water situation? People are thirsty, you know!
And, I hate to be the one to bring this up with you, but back in the place that must not be named, we at least had food to eat and water to drink. I know they worked us to the bone, but we had beds to sleep in at night when we were exhausted. And sure, they killed all of the first born sons all those years ago, but things got better. All we want to know is, what’s the plan man?!?!
Why did you drag us all the way out here just to die?!
Lord, what am I supposed to do with these people? They’re just about ready to kill me. I told you back when you showed up in that bush that no one would listen to me. And then that advice, the whole, “tell them I AM sent you,” that went over really well. And, frankly Lord, I have to agree with the people, what exactly is the plan, because right now, Egypt isn’t looking so bad…
A voice cries out: You fool! Go grab that stick over there on the floor, take some friends, hit the rock and water will come out so the people can drink.
So Moses did as he was told. And the people drank. And they continued to wander and grumble and complain. He named the place of the miracle water rock, Massah and Meribah, because the people kept fighting and saying, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”
That story has been told and relived in our own lives over and over again. In the wilderness it was the people complaining about the water. For some of us, it has sounded like this:
A husband sits down with his wife – I know I shouldn’t have cheated on you honey. But it was only the one time, and really, you haven’t been available and what was I supposed to do? I come home from work, putting in all those hours so you can have the food ready for me on the table, and then I’m not even greeted with a smile, and heaven forbid a compliment. And so, yeah, I cheated. It felt like what it used to feel like with us…
A wife sits down with her husband – I don’t think we should stay together. Neither of us have broken our marriage vow, but it just doesn’t feel like this is going to work. You never listen to me, you never care about how I feel. You’re gone all the time and you’re so distant. I work so hard to have everything ready for you, and have you ever thanked me? Have you ever even noticed everything I do? In my last marriage, as horrible as it was, at least I felt seen and noticed. But with you, it’s like I don’t even exist sometimes…
Parents sit down with their child – These grades are simply not going to cut it. We’ve sacrificed too much for you to throw your education away like this. Who do you think paid for the tutor, and have you even considered how much time we’ve given up to stay up night after night to help you with your homework? Why can’t you be like Jimmy from down the street? He listens to his parents, he gets good grades, he never gets in trouble. But you? You’re making everything so difficult!
And so it goes.
We look to other people and other things all the time to fix whatever is wrong or broken or empty within us.
It’s what individuals do when they find themselves in a rut at work – they will spend more time looking through job postings for other companies than working for their current employer, and then they run off at the first opportunity for something else only to discover more of the same.
It’s what dating couples do when they’re not ready to get married because they’re fighting and not communicating at all and they assume that getting married will force them into a place where it will all get sorted out but it only gets worse.
It’s what married couples do who fight because maybe they shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place and they decide to have a kid because surely thats the best solution to the problem.
And then, in the midst of all of that hoped-for self-discovery, we spend more time looking backward or in other places, than we do observing the present.
Well, at least back in Egypt we had water to drink. My last job didn’t make me stay so late on Friday afternoons. My last boyfriend really listened to me. My neighbor’s kid is so much better behaved than my own.
And it’s not long before everyone is left feeling empty inside.
Idolatry – it’s not a word we use much in the church these days, but it’s a word God uses all the time in the scriptures. Idolatry: looking to others to give you what only God can give.
It’s the first of the ten commandments – you shall have no other gods but the Lord.
And we break that one all the time.
We can’t replace God with a spouse, or a kid, or a job, or a political party, or any other number of things we look to to provide meaning and value in our lives. And, if we’re honest, we know those things always come up short.
They come up short because no spouse or friend or kid or job or anything else can give us whatever it is we are looking for.
The Israelites had no hope and no future in Egypt. Beaten to death, belittled for being who they were, relegated to the worst imaginable conditions. And God shows up for spectacularly, delivering God’s people out of bondage in Egypt into a strange new land.
But the people grumble, because no matter how much we think the grass is greener on the other side, its still grass.
And, for some bewildering reason, its in our wandering that God delights in showing up. Hey Moses, go hit that rock with the stick and see what happens. Oh, you all are hungry, I’ll just rain a little manna down from heaven. Still living under the rule of sin and death, I’ll send my Son to turn the world upside down.
God, in spite of our earnings and deservings (which don’t amount to much in the first place), shows up and pours out the living water upon all who are thirsty. In the church we call it baptism, but it really happens all the time. Frankly, it’s one of the reasons we get together so often, to remind ourselves and one another of the story that is our story, the story of what we once were and the story of who we are now, because of God.
Not because we’ve finally found the right path, or person, or program. But because God is the source of our being and calls into existence the things that do not exist and makes a way where there was no way.
When we begin to see how God is active in our lives, then our friends can let us down and even though it hurts it won’t upend us; our children can drive us crazy and it won’t destroy us; our spouses can speak the deepest and ugliest truths about us and it will be painful to hear, but we can handle it.
We can do all of that because the cross has already spoken the deepest and darkest truth about who we are. We are the sinners for whom Christ died.
I like to call that the inconvenient truth of Christianity. We’ve become very good these days, frankly we have lots of practice, at pointing out the sins in other people. To some degree I think that’s what social media is all about. We either log on to call out the imperfections of others, or we try to portray ourselves as if we are perfect into order to put other down.
The inconvenient truth of Christianity is that we are no better than those who wandered in the wilderness of Sin looking for a little sip of water. We are no better than the television pundits who have made careers out of sensationalizing what we might call the news. We are no better than the man who drove from town to town buying all of the hand sanitizer in order to resell it as a huge margin and is now sitting on 17,000 bottles and has been blocked from online sales.
This is a confounding moment for the church and, strangely, some are using this as a moment to defy the calls of the community and are gathering this morning in spite of the danger. And yet, this is a danger that extends far beyond those who gather, because those gather run the risk of sharing the virus with everyone else.
We live in an age of self-righteousness and assertion such that we are all often saying in some way, shape, and form: “I am right and they are wrong – pay attention to me because I’m the one who really matters – you can’t tell me what to do because I am the master of my own universe.”
But part of the Christian message is that God is the master of the universe, that God comes to us in ways that defy and upend our expectations.
The cross reminds us that God rules in weakness.
And remember, it is from that cross that points at and reflects all of our iniquities and all of our sins and all of our shames that the Lord says, “I forgive you, because you have no idea what you’re doing.”
The story of Moses and the wandering Israelites in the wilderness is a familiar tale because many of us experience it on a regular basis. We thirst for things both tangible and intangible and, more often than not, we look to the people and the things around us to fill the holes deep within us.
But there’s another story in the Bible about someone who thirsts.
Jesus is on his way to Galilee and he decides to stop in Samaria at a well.
At the well, in the middle of the day, he meets a woman carrying an empty bucket.
But it’s not the bucket he notices.
He sees her, truly sees her, and takes in her emptiness, the emptiness that has carried her from man to man to man to man.
And he says to her, “I am Living Water. What I give is from a spring that will never ever stop. It will never run dry. It will fill you with love and meaning and purpose and value and healing and worth.”
And she leaves, gushing to everyone about what Jesus had done for her.
Jesus does, again and again, what we could not and would not do for ourselves. He speaks a word of truth that can sting and build us up in the same moment. And, in the end, he is the one who saves us, and not the other way around. Amen.
Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that it in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
This is where it all really starts, here back at the beginning. Sure, we’ve got the creation of the whole cosmos in the first seven days in Genesis 1, but this is where the story gets good.
It gets juicy.
The story of Adam and Eve is perhaps the greatest of stories, up until the advent of Jesus Christ. What we discover and find here in the garden is inexhaustible, it can never be fully mined, and it cannot be explained away. So much, if not all, of who we are is founded upon what happens to these two with their mid-afternoon fruit snack.
Today we re-enter the strange new world of the Bible and learn how the created order became utterly disordered.
The garden is called paradise and in these few verses paradise is lost. Of course, when we hear the word “paradise” we conjure up in our minds all sorts of images and ideas that don’t really have much to do with Eden. It’s not all crystal clear beaches and palm trees and drinks with ice that never fully melt away. It is paradise simply because it was a perfect communion between God and God’s creation.
Which, if we’re honest, doesn’t sound too much like paradise to us.
We can’t even fathom how communal the communion is because it just sounds wrong. And if it sounds wrong it does so because we don’t like the idea of being too intimately connected with anything, let alone God.
We know what we’re really like behind closed doors and in our internet search histories and in our knee-jerk reactions. We know how quick we are to judge and how untrusting we can be, and frankly we’d like to keep God out of all that, thank you very much.
Whatever paradise might have been for Adam and Eve, whatever the community called communion looked like, it definitely wasn’t like the world today.
Nations reeling from the threats of the Corona-virus and what it means for the so-called global community.
Children relying on free lunches at schools during the weeks because they don’t have any food to eat at home over the weekend.
Individuals seeking solace and comfort in the digital community because meeting people in the real world has become too difficult or too frightening.
But here we find our first parents in the paradise of God and there is only one rule. Can you imagine? You can do whatever you want! You are never in need of anything at all! There’s just one teeny tiny restriction. Think of the generosity of God here before the fall. God has opened up the entirely of everything for them with one little exception, and it’s not enough.
Imagine it like this: You’re a child, and you’re spending the afternoon at your grandmother’s house. The weather is perfect outside and she’s got this incredible playground for you to enjoy, there’s a pitcher of cold lemonade waiting for you on the porch and you can do anything you want! Except, your grandmother tell you, you can’t leave the yard.
Fair enough right?
Until the next door neighbor comes to the slats in the fence and calls out your name. “Hey look, I’ve got a few toys over here on my side, why don’t you come over here and play with me?”
There’s one rule – don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil – Don’t leave the yard.
Enter the snake, the next door neighbor.
Did God really tell you not to eat from that one tree?
Did your grandmother really tell you not to come and play over here?
God wants you to be able to eat – just take a bite.
Your grandmother wants you to enjoy yourself, come and join me.
The seeds of doubt are planted.
You can’t help herself, and before you know it you’re playing in the sandbox on the other side of the fence, the fruit is dripping out of the corners of your mouth.
And Adam, your best friend, he doesn’t even put up a fight and just jumps right in with the fun.
And your eyes are opened. That’s the way scripture puts it. The effect of our first parents’ choice was instantaneous. They now know what they didn’t know. There’s no going back to what life was like before. They’ve had a taste of the other side of the fence.
What do they fell with all of this new knowledge? Are they puffed up and feeling invincible? Are they ready to take over the world?
They are afraid, they are ashamed, they are embarrassed. They see themselves as they had never seen themselves before, and they can’t stand the sight. They fashion some fig leaves together to make clothes, and they go hide in the bushes.
This is the root of all sin. It was then and still is now. We want to be God. We want to determine out own limits. We want to be in control of ourselves and others.
And whenever we catch a glimpse of our true selves in the mirror, when we recognize all that we want and can not and should not have, then we hide ourselves away in shame.
And that’s the end of the story. Or, at least, that’s where the scripture reading stops for today. But, of course, that’s not the end – it’s only the beginning. Everything is uphill from here on out – uphill because it never gets easier.
But perhaps never is too strong of word.
But lets not skip to the end too quickly.
In the garden they make their choice, they begin to see, and they decide the best course of action is to hide, from each other, from themselves, and from God.
Prior to their decision this fear and shame was inconceivable, but now they find themselves in the bushes.
And this, for better and much worse, is exactly who we are. We are stuck in the bushes for good, hiding in our own self-knowledge, hoping that God won’t find us and see us as we know ourselves to be.
This is truly where everything went wrong.
It is the division between all that is good, namely God, and all that is bad, namely us.
We are, whether we like to admit it or not, rebellious, disobedient, idolatrous, and selfish.
And it is precisely at this moment in the story, as we see Adam and Eve hiding, that we often let the story run off in the wrong direction. For, I hope you have noticed so far, that almost everything I have said in this sermon has been entirely about us – our choices, our mistakes, our futility.
It hasn’t really been about God.
This text, usually for the worse, has been used as a call to arms for those who would call themselves Christians in one of two ways.
One, we are told about how bad we are and how badly we need to feel about how bad we are. We leave church wallowing in self-pity and feeling even more exhausted than we did on the way in for all of our sins, past, present, and future.
Or, Two, we’re told all about how people outside the walls of the church are bad and how it is our job to go out there and fix them in all of their badness by bringing them in here so they too can start feeling bad about how bad they are.
And, sure, sometimes we do need to feel bad about our badness. Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? Of course not.
But, that’s not the whole story.
For as much as we might want to believe that its all up to us, or that the church exists to help broken people fix themselves, or that we have to go searching for God, or whatever else – that’s not the story of the Bible.
The story of the Bible is that God is the one who comes to be and dwell and find his lost, and broken, and even dead creation.
Notice, this is the first thing God does after the fateful choice of Adam and Eve. God doesn’t hurl down lightning bolts from the sky or send in a billowing tornado out of anger. No, God goes into the garden, and like a loving parent (or grandparent), kindly intones, “Adam, where are you?”
Adam, Even, and all the rest of us are lost. And for some strange reason, we keep willing ourselves to believe that we are the ones who have to find ourselves. We keep trying to get back to Eden as if we are capable of doing so.
We’ve done all sorts of crazy things all in the attempts at making this life more like whatever we think paradise should be.
We got rid of slavery only to instead have the highest rate of incarceration of any developed nation.
We tried to protect the freedom of the individual and instead we got greater wealth inequality than just about any other place on the planet.
We tried to produce advancements in medicine, and I just read that American life spans have shorten for the first time in decades due to the rise in the opioid epidemic.
Think about that for a moment – scores of people in this country would rather commit slow suicide than have to keep living with people like us.
Whenever we read this story from the beginning we forget that it is exactly that, a beginning. The rest of the Bible will be about how God refuses to abandon us even after we fail to listen again and again and again. God does not give up on his children even though they keep hopping the fence to go play with the forbidden toys. God keeps waiting on the porch with the lemonade.
And for a lot of scripture, that’s kind of the whole story. God on one side of the fence, and we his creatures hanging out on the other side. At times, God will toss over a little bit of manna, or a little bit of wisdom, to help make sense out of the chaos of our own making.
But then Jesus, God in the flesh, breaks down the whole fence, brings a new creation into existence. God, in Christ, rectifies the wrongs of Eden and opens up a new paradise for us, one even greater than what we had in that first garden.
And we, believe it or not, get a taste of the goodness of that promised garden right here and right now. This thing we call communion is both a foretaste of what is to come, and is also a call back to what we once had in the garden. This is what God offers us, even though we broke and break the rules, even though we chose to leave the paradise God gave to us.
For we, despite our attempts at self-righteousness and best intentions, are the kind of people who, one Friday afternoon when the sky went dark, as church and state were finally working together, democracy in action, happened to torture the Son of God to death on a cross.
And yet, with some of his final breaths he pronounces not damnation but instead invitation. The Son of man calls us by name, with open arms on the cross, and destroys the fence of our own making forever and ever. Amen.